Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

How to Act

June 24, 2011

Thomas Graves, Shawn Sides, and E. Jason Liebrecht of Rude Mechs Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2011

Los Angeles has been awash in avant-garde theater over the last couple of weeks. Much of it was sponsored as part of RADAR LA, the first outing of a locally-hosted international theater festival sponsored by a consortium of groups including REDCAT. Sadly, I missed most of these programs while out of town, but I did get to see Center Theater Group’s contribution to the festival on Thursday. Austin, TX’s own Rude Mechs are now presenting The Method Gun at Culver City's Kirk Douglas Theater in an extended run through June 26. The one-act show, written by Kirk Lynn and directed by Shawn Sides (who also performs with the cast), primarily concerns actors and their craft. It brings to mind Annie Baker‘s recent Circle Mirror Transformation. But unlike Baker's Waiting for Guffman-style community theater exercises, The Method Gun is a bit more serious about its jabs at the Art of Theater and is certainly much more bizarre.

The Method Gun is a play within a play within a play and at times it’s easy to get lost in the meta twists and turns of the unfolding action. The Rude Mechs actors play themselves and do speak directly to the audience at times. They are also playing the five members of a purportedly legendary theater troupe from the 1960s and 70s under the direction of an off-kilter guru, Stella Burden. Burden never appears on stage, and the action follows what happens to the troupe after she suddenly disappears, abandoning her devotees in the midst of their mandated 9-year rehearsal process for an unusual staging of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Most notably, this performance will entirely eliminate the characters of Stella, Stanley, Blanche and Mitch from the play. Amid these brief Streetcar remnants are re-enacted theatrical exercises the troupe has learned under Burden’s tutelage including “Kissing Practice” and “Crying Practice” which are announced via transparencies on an overhead projector and consist of largely self-explanatory activity. All of these exercises and activities compose what Burden reportedly called “The Approach” and her abandoned actors spend some time debating the accuracy and relevance of their continued adherence to this system in its creator's absence.

Needless to say the references here come fast and furious from the obvious connection to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot to the entire history of method acting in the United States. The Stella who has disappeared from rehearsals is most certainly a burden of another sort on her company and her sharing a name with Williams’ heroine and the great trainer of American actors, Stella Adler, is no coincidence. Neither is the fact that Stanislavski’s original three-volume introduction to his system of acting methodology, which would beget American method acting, was set in the world of a fictional acting school. The Rude Mechs have cleverly created just such a school to riff on the the process of performance and Stainslavski's contribution to its history. There is a larger point here about inspiration and the source of creativity as well as the way in which all of us must abandon our teachers at some point to become creative in our own right.

The show is quite funny and often surprising with some stirring visual images and clever audience involvement. The highly physical and choreographed climax is as surprising as any number of other inventions in the show from random intrusions from a smart-mouthed tiger to some of the most joyful and oddly uninhibited male nudity you've caught on stage before. But perhaps I've given too much away already. The Method Gun for all its cleverness is also not afraid of a little sentiment, and it occasionally wallows in it perhaps in an effort to avoid becoming overly intellectualized. Still it's a unique theatrical experience and one that you too can catch, but only for this final weekend.

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